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Notions of the "Cinematic"

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Joey Bania
Notions of the "Cinematic"
on May 31, 2011 at 10:40:17 am

Hey Team.

I'm currently putting together a research project examining the popular perception that DSLRs enable a low-budget "cinematic" aesthetic and would love some feedback on a couple of things.

First, I'd be interested to hear people's ideas about what exactly gives a film that "cinematic" quality. Is it largely characteristics of the cinematography? Soundtrack? Is it simply a matter of opening up the iris all the way for razor-thin DOF?

Second, I'd love some leads to other writing and research (academic or otherwise) on this topic. Largely I'm looking for historical accounts of cinematic aesthetics but recent discussions that consider the role of DSLRs would be a bonus.

Any feedback would be much appreciated.

Read more:

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Fernando Mol
Re: Notions of the "Cinematic"
on May 31, 2011 at 12:41:38 pm

To have a cinematic look you need a cinematic eye.

Everything else, camera included, it's just a tool.

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Stephen Smith
Re: Notions of the "Cinematic"
on May 31, 2011 at 2:12:04 pm

It is defiantly the razor-thin DOF. A lot of cameras have really small chips that made a nice DOF imposable or hard to get in certain cases. I can't believe how easy and nice the DOF is with the T2i, a camera sold for under a $1,000. I would watch the "The Great Camera Shootout" for a film to digital comparison:

Stephen Smith
Utah Video Productions

Check out my Motion Training DVD

Check out my Motion Tutorials

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Mark Suszko
Re: Notions of the "Cinematic"
on May 31, 2011 at 2:28:51 pm

Short DOF, wide dynamic range, plus 16x9 frame plus exaagerated shutter pulldown effects.

That last one really irks me, because what it amounts to is pople deliberately aping what was always a flaw in the transfer of 24 frame film to 30-frame video. You're making video trying to look like film that's been inexpertly transferred to video. That's like making a painting of a person making a painting.

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Mike Cohen
Re: Notions of the "Cinematic"
on May 31, 2011 at 4:00:09 pm

Fernando makes an excellent point. Put another way, a monkey with a film camera does not create cinematic imagery. An artist creates cinematic imagery based upon experience, knowledge and application of techniques (craft). If that craft happens to call for a Panavision camera or a RED or the forthcoming MAUVE so be it - but a sophisticated piece of equipment is only an extension of the artist's eye.
Yes there is a lot of focus on equipment around these parts, and knowing how to get the most out of any piece of kit is certainly important, but humans make cinema, not machines.

Mike Cohen

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Richard Herd
Re: Notions of the "Cinematic"
on May 31, 2011 at 5:59:48 pm

Well said.

It's the story!


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Andrew Rendell
Re: Notions of the "Cinematic"
on Jun 1, 2011 at 10:45:10 am

I think that article Richard links to covers the picture issues very well, but I would also add cutting style (holding on to big shots more than fast cutting tight ones) and music/sound effects as having a big contribution as well.

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Jeff Breuer
Re: Notions of the "Cinematic"
on Jun 3, 2011 at 3:54:25 pm

Everyone here makes excellent points about the aesthetics of the argument. DOF, clolors, low light shooting ability, high quality image, these are all excellent points that move our traditional perspectives of a video camera closer to that of a contemporary film camera. But where you derive your meaning of "cinematic" is important because the first cinematic camera did not have most of these listed aspects. Would one argue that "The Great Train Robbery" is less cinematic than "The Social Network"?

Here are some sources I have found interesting to follow in this area

Shane Hurlbut

Stu Maschwitz

Another good place to poke around is

Hope that helps.

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Mike Smith
Re: Notions of the "Cinematic"
on Sep 5, 2011 at 7:28:12 pm

Depth of field in cinema is used in very different ways. The great Orson Welles in Citizen Kane worked on a "deep focus" concept right at the other extreme, and over the years many different approaches have been chosen.

Cinematic: if it has a meaning, to me it might involve choice of subject matter and visual approach : something worth spending time in a darkened room with a giant screen to watch (and not just serious drama - this could include comedy, musical entertainment, whatever) and something that takes advantage of that big screen in its composition and staging ...

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Tim Wilson
Re: Notions of the "Cinematic"
on Sep 6, 2011 at 12:50:29 am

[Mike Smith] "Depth of field in cinema is used in very different ways. The great Orson Welles in Citizen Kane worked on a "deep focus" concept right at the other extreme."

Kane is my favorite example to use whenever this subject comes up, more specifically, the work of DP Gregg Toland, who used this approach on other movies as well.

When you see them on a proper screen in Blu-ray, or heck, VHS on an improper one, you can see all of this more clearly than in these skanky web pictures, but here's one of the pivotal scenes. There are the three people, with young Charles playing outside the window, but also note the extra layers provided by the doorway, each the beams of the ceiling,the paper, the chair...

Another of my favorites shots, where he's also using a rail, and even more dramatic, the ceiling lamps. Citizen Kane's use of the ceiling is a whole nother story, but I remember nearly falling out of my chair the first time I saw this one:

Great examples abound in movies like Grapes of Wrath. I guarantee that it's been too long since you watched this, and I guarantee you'll be floored by it.

Not an iconic frame like the ones from Kane, but a bizarrely effective example of deep focus.

This one from Capra's Best Years of Our Lives may be the best example. Check the guy in the phone booth.

Now here's the thing. Toland played with this all the time. He was never bound by his own rules.

This is another image from Kane that made me gasp the first time I saw it. It's hard to say what's in focus and what's not, because it's mostly just light and shadows. That said, the guy in the background is mooostly in focus...but seen through the smoke, it's hard to say, and ultimately beside the point. The point is that all journalism is smoke and mirrors -- both Kane, and these guys "documenting" him.

Another one that made me gasp, the opening shot of Grapes. The trick is almost how much Toland was able to taper off focus without shortening the depth of the frame.

Now, as much as his work is most identified with those super-deep shots, and yeah, a shallow one here and there, some of Toland's images that moved me most are the ones that play with reflections. The question is, where's the focus?

From Ball of Fire. Shallow on the layers at the front and back (the hands and the woman), and actually quite deep from the top of the matchbox to the one match that seems to be floating in space. I say that it's deep DoF even though it's a short distance, because as close to the table as he clearly is, you'd never expect the DoF to go even THAT far. Try it some time if you don't believe me.

So it's two shallow layers sandwiching a layer that's physically only a few inches big, but shot as if it's much bigger.

The same trick in reverse, from Kane. Didn't make me gasp, but made me raise my eyebrows. Okay, I gasped.

He's messing with us again. The depth is coming from the two mirrors reflecting on themselves, so it's just one guy and one flat surface -- the mirror, right? But part of the story is that Kane is all alone in this huge house that he built to indulge his own ego, which means that there's actually a lot of physical separation between Kane and the mirror, which you need in order to keep his feet in the frame.

Although notice that the only feet in the frame are the ones reflected in the mirror. Discuss!

Okay, this next one DEFINITELY made me gasp. I saw this in junior high school in the early 70s. No HBO. It was still "The Green Channel," with a few thousand subscribers in lower Manhattan. Cable as we know it was still years away. Art house films at the time were all Clockwork Orange, Last Tango, and Solaris. Modern stuff. Nobody cared about old movies yet.

Which is how I came to see Grapes of Wrath in 16mm, projected on a WALL in my classroom. Dude, the THERMOSTAT was in the MIDDLE OF THE PICTURE.

And yet, gasping.

This is by no means the most dramatic single frame from the sequence, where once again, the motion tells the story. John Ford was obviously obsessed with the depth of the American west, and he emphasized scope wherever he could, and Toland hit this one out of the park for him.

Here, it's almost dawn after the long drive through the desert. Most of the family is still asleep, so we're in tight on the men of the family. But as the sky starts to lighten, they start to see the scale of what's in front of them -- lush, green hope. The shallow depth of field plays precisely opposed to the massive landscape opening up before their eyes.

So, it turns out that the guy who opened up the depth of the frame more than anyone before or since wasn't afraid to flatten it out. The only thing in focus is the windshield, where both the reflection and the people seeing it are out of focus.

Okay, so what's that mean about cinematic values? For me, it means "composition." Everything in its place.

In the first Kane image, there's a chair between the old man and the back wall. It might be that the only reason that chair is there is to provide one more layer...but you can tell it's not there by accident.

The Kane shot that's mostly just shadows and light -- everything in its place.

The shot from Best Years of Our Lives would have taken a day to set up as a STILL photo shoot. In motion, it's another that you just don't know how they pulled off, but EVERYTHING in its place.

There's cinematic for me. Everything with a unified intent. Depth of field, blocking, everything that goes into the nature of composition. The frame is composed. The scene is composed. Even in the context of 24-year old Orson Welles, his filmmaking flamboyance is rooted in Kane's self-aggrandizement....oh all right, and the hotshot radio kid showing off to his sedentary cinematic elders, but to pull it off, everything was in its place.

The biggest problem with focusing (haha) on depth of field is that it reduces the whole question to some combination of foreground and background. Look at any one of Toland's shots above: the fewest number of layers is three, and even the sharpest and deepest of them (to my eye, that's the one Best Years) has a dozen layers, easily discerned even if they're almost exactly in the same amount of focus.

And yet, you also still know exactly where to look, and you still know that the room has a specific depth, and where everything is placed in that depth.

The shot is COMPOSED. Everything is there by INTENT. Intent and composition are merged, and set at the service of larger storytelling priorities.

And yes, this applies to a spot or a show open every bit as much. Composition, intent, priority. Whatever you do, do it for a reason that stretches past any single frame to unify the shot, and to unify the shots into a larger whole.


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Mark Suszko
Re: Notions of the "Cinematic"
on Sep 6, 2011 at 2:06:56 am

Gee, Tim, thought about this, much?

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Tim Wilson
Re: Notions of the "Cinematic"
on Sep 6, 2011 at 2:52:25 am

Ah, the hazards of being in love with Gregg Toland's work for over 40 years, then pouring a film education all over it and lighting it on fire in the late 70s. What's a boy to do?

And yes, I think about this all the time. ALL THE TIME.

Except when I'm thinking about that other thing.

And sex.

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Sören Schulz
Re: Notions of the "Cinematic"
on Aug 23, 2011 at 10:31:46 pm

In my opinion shallow DOF might make a single shot look more cinematic, but for a whole film or a scene it's all about the staging, positioning of the camera and the framing.
Shoot a scene with ultra shallow DOF and only use angle/reverse-angle-close-ups and it would not look cinematic to me. Stage the same scene in one master and still have CU's, wide-shots, etc then it is getting there. So what I'm trying to say is that the director takes a big role in creating a cimematic feel. Having a DOF that comes close to the DOF we are used from film will add to that feel then.

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